November 2011
November 2011
11 min

Saturday 19th November 2011

11 min

Volcán Acatenango – obstacles, recoveries and a truly breathtaking view Following our day of preparation on Thursday, we were up perhaps not quite as early as we should have been, and it was not long before the first of several logistical hassles presented itself: all ATM’s in central Antigua rejected my card – perhaps due to the fact that I bent it slightly some time ago, or perhaps for some other reason, but I was forced to return to the hotel to fetch my Dutch card, which luckily worked. This initial temporary setback was nothing compared to the second: I lost my hotel room key completely! My sincere apologies have to go to Jacqueline, my travelling companion during my first month in Guatemala, because I lost patience with her for locking her key inside her room, and now here I was doing exactly the same, only worse! I hunted through all my luggage, which I had carefully packed into separate bags, one for the ascent of Acatenango and one to be left behind, I retraced my footsteps to the ATM, etc, etc, but the key was nowhere to be found, and finally I had to pay for a new lock! All this put me in a distinctly stressed mood, but finally I met up with my guide Luisa Zea and a friend, Steffi, and we were on our way, first to pick up our camping equipment from Old Town Outfitters, and then to Luisa’s home, where we found our driver, Carlos Nuñez, waiting in his Jeep Wrangler, a tough four-wheel-drive vehicle that was due to take us up as far as we could make it towards the upper slopes of Acatenango.

Steffi, Carlos and Luisa before we set off

The well-loaded Jeep

We transferred all the equipment into, or perhaps I should say onto, the Jeep, as there was no way we could fit even a quarter of our stuff inside the vehicle, and we secured the rest onto the roof. It was a tight squeeze…and then Luisa suddenly received a call to say that Luke, another friend, was going to join us! So back we drove to central Antigua, where we spent some time putting together our food supplies, and where we picked up Luke, and eventually we were on our way, heading out of town with the volcanoes Agua, Fuego and our destination, Acatenango, all showing well in bright sunshine. We passed through the by now very familiar town of San Miguel Dueñas, and then headed upwards on a dirt road that snaked its way up through the forest, with butterflies flying in great numbers – I could well see why this had been one of my great grandfather George Charles Champion’s favourite collecting localities.

Steffi, Luisa and Luke in the back of the Jeep

Suddenly, as we rounded a bend, a strong smell of burning became noticeable, and we lurched to a halt. Obstacle number three raised its ugly head, and after Carlos had spent some time tracing the problem, I had fears that our adventure would be halted, almost before it had begun. An electric cable had burned through under the car, and no supply was getting through at all. However, my fears were unfounded as the great mechanical skills of Carlos came to the rescue. He asked us to look for a plastic bottle…something which in this litter-strewn country is never hard to find, and then dived beneath the vehicle again. I am not sure exactly what the plastic bottle was used for, but finally Carlos emerged, having fixed not one but two burned cables, the car sprang into life, and we surged forward.

Luke, self and Steffi on the broken-down Jeep, with Carlos, apparently smiling, at work beneathSuddenly, Luisa announced that the $50 entrance ticket to allow us to drive up the volcano, which we had bought at the Finca San Sebastian the day before, was still in her home – obstacle number four! Luckily, however, the gatekeeper turned out not to be as difficult as many such minor officials can sometimes be, and he allowed us to pass through. From here, the road meandered its way up, first through agricultural areas, and then entered commercial cypress and pine plantations. Suddenly, coming around a bend, we found ourselves face to face with a huge forestry truck, completely blocking the track, and onto which huge logs were being manually loaded. We asked the driver if there was any way in which he could move, and he informed us that we would have to wait “Veinte minutos”. Knowing how long a Guatemalan twenty minutes could last, and with Luisa and I singing to ourselves “Espera un poquito más” (see previous blog post!), we got out and admired the panoramic view of the Volcán de Agua that could be seen from just along a nearby track.

The panorama of Volcan de Agua we enjoyed while waiting for the truck to move

Luisa jokingly trying to push the forestry truck out of our way

Finally, the last of the logs was manoeuvred precariously into place, and obstacle number five was cleared. We bucked our way onwards up the seemingly ever steeper track, stopping for a photo session at a mirador, before we entered native forest at about 2500 metres’ elevation. And what a forest; not only were the ancient trees festooned with epiphytes and mosses, but we were passing through a band of real genuine wild bamboo forest, and it is bamboo forest that I am so anxious to examine, for it is the habitat of my number one target butterfly, Drucina championi. I have not heard of any record of this species, named after my great grandfather, from the slopes of Acatenango, but the habitat looked ideal to me. However, it was already late, the sun was not strong, and although we had a quick look, we had to move on as we still needed to reach our campsite before dark.

Luisa, looking like Rocket-woman

Our original plan had been to drive up as far as we could get, and from there to hike up for perhaps one and a half hours (at the highly fit Luisa’s speed) to the very summit, and to pitch our tents in the crater. However, as we did not reach the highest driveable point until well after 17.00, we abandoned this idea, and opted instead to take the track that circles the upper slope of the volcano, eventually leading to a series of levelled ledges on which we could pitch our tents. After some struggles as we slid along this trail, which is almost entirely volcanic ash, we finally made it to the campsite, which sits just below the ridge that links Acatenango with the permanently active Volcán de Fuego, and we made our preparations for the night….and little did we know what a spectacular night it was to be! I must confess that I was feeling the 3700 metre altitude somewhat, and I got extremely cold, so I retreated for a while into my sleeping bag to try to warm up. Luke and Carlos set to work collecting wood, and finally a large pile was waiting…but Carlos was reluctant to set light to it. Steffi was also getting cold, and kept asking “¿Cuándo vamos a empezar con el fuego?” (When are we going to start the fire?), which became one of the catch-phrases of the trip!

Self, complete with Garhwali hat and the newly-purchased yellow fleece, with Fuego behind

Finally, the combination of some highly sophisticated fire-lighters called Mister Fuego, which Carlos had brought along, and the fire-making skills of Luke and Luisa, allowed the fire to be lit, and we settled down (as far as the freezing temperature would allow) for the evening.

A minor plume of smoke from Fuego

This campsite literally faces the peak of the Volcán de Fuego, and at intervals an orange glow would appear at the very top of the volcano, followed by a shower of molten volcanic rocks, lava would cascade down the slopes, and eventually, a few moments later, the bang of the explosion would reach us. Steffi, by balancing her Canon camera on a makeshift tripod in the form of a tree-stump, managed to obtain some truly spectacular shots – I hope she will send me a few, in which case I shall put them (acknowledged of course) in a future diary update. It was not long before the bottle of wine that Steffi had brought with her was empty, and then there came a debate about what we should drink next. The inventive Luke came up with the brilliant idea of pine-needle tea!!! He disappeared into the night, eventually returning clutching several bunches of fresh pine-needles, which he then stuffed into the empty wine bottle, then filled this with water, and placed the bottle in the fire. It did not take long to boil, and the resulting liquid was surprisingly drinkable! Someone even said “It tastes like Christmas!”. Steffi’s second catchphrase quickly became “¡Más té por favor!” (More tea please!). As well as the spectacular volcanic firework displays, the sky was full of stars, Jupiter was shining brightly above us, with its four Galilean moons clearly visible through my binoculars, and the lights of the towns of Esquintla, Alotenango, part of Antigua and even a section of the more distant capital, all combined to provide a breathtaking nocturnal panorama. But there was one more feature that we hoped to witness: that night, there was due to be a meteorite shower, and it was not long before both Luisa and I had seen separate shooting stars. It is always difficult to help others to see shooting stars, as by the time you have pointed one out, it has gone. Steffi, who was lying shivering, gazing up at the sky in the hope of seeing one, finally gave up and had to return to the fire to warm up. Just before we went to bed, and in fact after Luke had retreated into the tent, our patience was rewarded when one spectacular, relatively slow-moving shooting star, far larger and brighter than normal, appeared in the southern sky, and we were all able to turn in for the night with the satisfaction that nobody (other than Luke) had missed the grand finale of this freezing but wonderful evening. After an uncomfortable and distinctly chilly night, one interspersed with loud reports from the erupting Volcán de Fuego, the new day dawned bright and clear, and once the sun started beating on the campsite, the ice that had formed on the inside of the outer cover of my tent, and I finally felt able to emerge – and what a scene to emerge into! The volcanoes Agua and Fuego were set sharply against the swirling clouds below us, and in between, the peaks stretched away into the distance, the Pacific coast clearly visible to the south.

Agua panorama in the morning

The ridges stretching away towards El Salvado

Fuego in the morning

After a strange breakfast of bagels, peanut butter, cream cheese, blackberry jam, cookies and water (the fire had gone out, so no more pine-needle tea), we took down our tents, struggled to fold them up and to get them all into the correct bags, with the correct poles and pegs, and started the return slither to the Jeep. We finally never made it all the way to the summit, as Luisa had to be back down by midday, in order to be ready to attend the first half of her cousin’s wedding in Guatemala City this afternoon – the second half, the religious ceremony, will be held next weekend.

Our campsite, perched on its ledge

This time there were no obstacles, although at one point Carlos stopped the Jeep, turned it to face a seemingly almost vertical embankment, and started driving up it, reaching an angle of 45 degrees! He had told us that Jeeps can manage to move upwards even on such an amazingly steep incline, and he just wanted to show us – the “inclinometer” indeed registered 45 degrees!

The inclinometro reading 45 degrees

Carlos looking relaxed at this strange angle

We eventually made it back down to Antigua, and so ended a truly memorable excursion. My thanks to Luisa for her as usual excellent planning, to Carlos for being a great driver and repairman, and to Steffi and Luke for being excellent travelling companions, and respectively a wonderful photographer, fire-builder, pine-needle tea-inventor, and poetry reader!

The Volcan de Agua, with Pacaya to the right